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This high school’s culture leads many to Catholic faith


Ben Gingell | Shutterstock

John Burger - published on 05/22/21

Jesuit High School in Tampa, Florida, sees 22 students received into the Church.

In 2018, the Barna Group, a national research organization, found a significant increase in atheism among the so-called Generation Z — young people born between 1997 and 2012.

The percentage of “Gen Z” that identifies as atheist is double that of the U.S. adult population, Barna found, leading the researchers to call Gen Z the first truly “post-Christian” generation.

Other surveys over the past few years have painted similarly bleak outlooks regarding faith among younger people.

But one high school in Tampa, Florida, is bucking the trend. This month, 22 students at Jesuit High School, including boys from every grade level, received the sacraments of initiation into the Catholic Church.

These days, many Catholic schools accept non-Catholic students, and many non-Catholic families send their kids to Catholic schools, believing they will get a better education than at public schools.

At Jesuit Tampa this year, there were 14 students who were baptized Catholic after growing up with no religion. There were also eight who were already baptized in other Christian denominations who went to confession, were confirmed and received Communion for the first time. 

These sacraments of initiation took place during two Masses at the school, on May 13 and 14, reported Jesuit Fr. Sean Salai in America magazine.

“All about the culture”

Though this year’s “new class of Catholics” at the all-male high school is quite numerous, the number of students entering the Church has averaged between five and seven a year over the past decade.

According to school spokesman Pete Young, it’s all about the culture. 

“Jesuit Tampa has gradually built a culture of actively inviting students to share the Catholic faith,” America reported, quoting Young. The spokesman “also credits the school’s new campus minister, Jimmy Mitchell, with helping to energize this year’s process. Mr. Mitchell, hired last summer, came from a decade-long career of traveling as a Catholic youth conference speaker and organizer based in Tennessee.”

Mitchell said an important part of the success of the school’s R.C.I.A. program is its “discipleship groups.” A dozen such groups, consisting of eight to 12 students, meet every week during their lunch period “to explore in depth about their struggles with various vices and personal issues, challenging each other in their prayerful conversations to go deeper,” America explained.

Even in a year when the COVID-19 pandemic imposed so many restrictions, Jesuit Tampa was able to maintain its culture of discipleship. In fact, the limits may have played a role in the increased number of converts, inspiring “a lot of creativity and generosity among our students,” Mitchell told America. “Given that we were still reeling from COVID-19, we didn’t want to wait for retreats and international pilgrimages to come back before we started helping students encounter the love of God for them. We wanted to bring the spirit of those retreats and pilgrimages to campus in a new way: the spirit of brotherhood, vulnerability and conversion.”

Mitchell said that Jesuit Tampa has a “peer ministry culture of identifying and encouraging students who are respected by their peers to take on leadership roles in religious programming, thus empowering natural leaders,” America explained. “This framework proved useful for meeting the needs of students seeking deeper connections with God, others and themselves during the anxieties of the present time,” the magazine said.

“We have a ton of upperclassmen who take their faith seriously and are very zealous,” Mitchell said. “They’ve been pretty profound witnesses as peer ministers for these underclassmen.”

“I’m excited to see what comes as I get to know Christ better, to be a happier and healthier person in the coming football season,” said freshman Luke Knight, who considered himself a “none,” someone who had no religious affiliation, prior to his conversion. Knight also became the new starting quarterback of the Jesuit Tigers football team the day after his reception into the Church. 

Knight said developing a prayer routine has been the most valuable part of the R.C.I.A. process for him. 

“I would say Jesuit [Tampa] has put Catholicism in front of us in an easy-access manner, to the point where it makes you say, ‘Why not?’” he said. “Meeting so many great people of faith at Jesuit has really made a difference for me.”

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